Papal visit finale: The Gondoliers


The results of the two elections held among the gondoliers have come in and now the pope can sleep easier knowing who exactly is going to be rowing him from one shore to the other next Sunday. (One of them won’t be Charon.  I presume.)

One can hope that the pope's voyage across the Grand Canal won't bear any resemblance to this little jaunt. ("Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx," by Alexander Litovchenko.)

And the winners are: Franco and Bruno Dei Rossi, nicknamed “Strigheta” (not much of a surprise there, they were at the head of the pack several days ago), and one each of the two famous battling pairs of racers: From the “Vignottini,” Igor Vignotto; from the other, Giampaolo D’Este.

Comments in the Gazzettino on this outcome were as sardonic as they were swift:

“This is splendid news.  In the end, love always triumphs.”

“Since when have gondoliers all become basibanchi (these are those obsessively pious people who are always in church)?  Is this the miracle we’ve been waiting for from Giovanni Paolo II?” (who was beatified yesterday, first step on the road to official sainthood).

“Given the well-known diplomatic refinement among these four, it makes one wonder …  if they can manage not to swear at each other for ten minutes.  It wouldn’t be so bad even if it were to happen. Venice couldn’t present itself worse than what it is, even if it wanted to.”

So everyone has finally calmed down?  I know one person who hasn’t: Lino. He is all of the following: Astonished, infuriated, and offended, genuine, incandescent emotions far removed from the Lilliputian self-serving quibbling that has distinguished this whole affair.

Why is Lino so angry?  Because of all the people mooted for the Papal Row, he regards Igor Vignotto as the last — actually, far behind the last — gondolier who deserves this honor.

Yes, we remember in the end that rowing the pope is, in fact, an honor, and not just another gig.  I realize that “honor” is a word that rarely — well, never — seems to find a seat on the bus of normal conversation regarding gondoliers, but a papal visit is a noteworthy exception and the men who row him ought to have consciences which have been washed at least on the “delicate” cycle.

Igor and Giampaolo have two things in common.  One is that they  both row in the bow of the gondolino, which means that they, at least technically, can’t be considered guilty of all the skulduggery which has led to the current bitterness because they aren’t the ones responsible for steering the boat.  All they’re doing up there in the front is rowing their brains out.

Their other link, unfortunately, is that they both were banished from racing for the entire 2008 season because of their respective crimes in 2007.

In the case of Giampaolo, he was found guilty of having threatened a race judge with serious bodily harm, his way of asserting his innocence regarding an infraction during a race for which the judge had punished him.  The infraction is one thing, but stating in the hearing of many people that he would be prepared to settle the score by attacking the judge physically is, as they say here, “another pair of sleeves.” Also, there’s a rule against it.

Giampaolo D'Este.

I note that he only said he wanted to do it, he didn’t actually hurt anybody. This is a good thing, because while privacy laws make it difficult to discover his exact height and weight (I could probably do it eventually, but time is short), I can say that he appears to correspond to the stature of a two-year-old grizzly.  One of his nicknames is “The Giant.”  But rules are rules, even for midgets, and we can’t have racers going around volunteering to bash the judges.

But Igor’s case was worse, because what he did not only offended the rules and the judges, but all the other racers — those present as well as the hundreds stretching back into history — and the entire world of racing and, in a sense, the city of Venice itself.

It happened at the end of the culminating race of the Regata Storica three years ago (September 2007), in what then was a notorious altercation but which now seems to have been totally forgotten (which also adds to Lino’s indignation),

It’s true that the race had been unusually fierce, even by the standards of the searing rivalry pitting him and his cousin against the D’Este-Tezzat pair, and it’s true that the finish was so close that the judges had to check the video to determine the winner. But when Igor heard that they had given him second place, he kind of lost his mind.

Igor Vignotto exultant after passing D'Este to win the race at Murano in 2009, the year they both returned from exile.

Not only did he engage in a volcanic exchange with the mayor, Igor grabbed the prize pennants and threw them  into the Grand Canal.

Not just the two pennants destined for him and his cousin, but all eight pennants waiting to be awarded to the rowers of the first four boats to finish.

Of the many things which, in the view of various people, would have been much better thrown into the water (the “Boy with the Frog” being one of them), pennants have never, and should never, be treated in this manner. Set aside the fact that not all of them got fished out in time; or the fact that those that were fished out were essentially D.O.A., thanks to the salt water. It’s not even a question of whether the city made replacements.  It’s not even a question.  He shouldn’t have done it, and however good it may have made him feel at the moment, that’s how bad it made everybody else feel.

Not much is sacred to your average Venetian racer, but the prize pennant comes pretty close. Red for first place, white for second, green for third, blue for fourth. The remaining five teams just have to smile and look ahead to next time.

So when Lino heard that Igor was one of the Papal Rowers, it was Too Much, even in a city where things that are Too Much happen every day.

Bruno Dei Rossi "Strigheta," the only man ever to have won all the official races, rowing in the bow or the stern.

First a rower allows himself to essentially spit in the collective eye of the city, the race, the other racers, and history, and now he gets a reward?  Of all the people who could have been chosen, they chose a person who had committed an outrage that had never been committed by anyone, not even “Mad Dog” Sullivan.  And, strange to say, so far Lino is the only person who has expressed any opinion on this.

There’s a sprightly ditty in  the second act of “The Gondoliers,” by Gilbert and Sullivan.  It’s called “Here we are at the risk of our lives.”

Franco Dei Rossi "Strigheta." Oddly, for two such great racers, his seasons rowing with his brother were not their best.


I think it should be played in the background all day next Sunday.


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  1. Birgit says:

    What a fabulous decision! An honor for the „Dei Rossi’s“ and a nice „how to behave“-lesson for Igor Vignotto and Giampaolo D’Este (at least I hope so!). Maybe they didn’t earn the honor because of their bad behaviour but they are the best „prodieri“ at present.

    • Erla says:

      I myself think that the rowers should have been chosen, as per a very old but by now evidently forgotten tradition, among the “re del remo.” Who may or may not have been gondoliers, but who were great rowers and highly deserving of recognition. There are at least four they could have called on with no problems at all. But no.

  2. Robin Hilliard says:

    Doesn’t the Church have a long tradition of treating the “Prodigal Son” much better than it treats the son that never behaved badly?

    • Erla says:

      Yes of course. But the crucial element that’s missing here is repentance. The Prodigal Son repented first, then the party started. It’s not like he just showed up and said “Well, I’m here now, what’s to eat?”

  3. Robin Hilliard says:

    PS. This is the anniversary of my father’s death…he would have loved this story…

    • Erla says:

      I’m touched that you think so. He’d probably have loved a lot about Venice — I mean, the nutty parts, not just the water.

  4. Isn’t it a historically honoured tradition to have serious in-fighting among the gondoliers? Some churches in Venice have multiple gates, one made for the Nicolotti guild, the other for the Castellani, so they could avoid meeting and soiling civil oars with civil blood on sacred Sunday. At least guidebooks say so.

    • Erla says:

      Guidebooks say all sorts of extraordinary things. I’ve read a good number of them and most merely repeat things that have been written somewhere else, thereby propagating the same often-flawed statements. I have never seen a church in Venice with “multiple gates,” nor have I read or heard of any such thing. In any case, conflict between gondoliers has never, to my knowledge, led to anything worse than insults and grudges. There were many disputes, sometimes violent, between boatmen of every sort under the Venetian Republic; there was a court which was occupied exclusively in adjudicating these cases. But why would gondoliers want to fight today? There’s enough money for everybody.